Cynthia Lake and her father, Jerry Lake, stood at the top of a hill near Tejon Pass and carefully opened the bright yellow canopy on a 29-foot umbrella. It was a moment they had been working toward for years.

As they turned away from their task, they could see hundreds of the newly opened umbrellas stretching for miles across the sculpted hills and straw-colored slopes south of Bakersfield.

"It was a masterpiece," Ms. Lake recalled, "created by the leading contemporary artist of our time -- and it was in our own backyard."

This month marks the 20th anniversary of the largest art installation Kern County has ever seen, maybe the largest temporary art exhibit ever created.

But the surreal view of 1,760 yellow umbrellas -- spread over 18 miles along Interstate 5 between Bakersfield and Los Angeles -- was neither the beginning nor the end of the massive undertaking. On that same long-ago October day in 1991, on the other side of the world in a verdant river valley in Ibaraki, Japan, 1,340 blue umbrellas also were opened against that region's lush, watery landscape, making the project truly international in scope.

The artists who conceived of such a bold and audacious undertaking were Bulgarian-born Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude. Christo, who was 56 at the time, was the public face of the couple's artistic partnership, and he was already well known for creating large and sometimes controversial environmental projects, such as the "Running Fence," a 24 1â„2-mile-long fabric fence that ran through parts of Sonoma and Marin counties and ended submerged in the cold waters of the Pacific. The artists had also used fabric to wrap the famous Pont Neuf bridge in Paris in 1985.

But now, Christo and Jeanne-Claude had come to Bakersfield, where all 3,100 umbrellas -- including those bound for Japan -- would ultimately be assembled by Bakersfield-based Rain for Rent, the longtime local company owned by Jerry and Cynthia Lake and other members of the Lake family.

The years-long project would come to be known as "The Umbrellas, Japan-USA 1984-1991."

But most people just called it Christo's Umbrellas.

Whimsy along the interstate

Imagine making the drive up the Grapevine, a road trip thousands of area families had made countless times before. Only this time, you begin to spot lone yellow umbrellas in the distance, one standing here, one there. Then, as the grade steepens, they multiply, now showing up in clusters, seemingly random groupings or standing in long curved lines.

Someone in your car spots one at the top of a distant hillock. And there! A dozen or more demanding your attention.

Motorists marveled as flurries of umbrellas appeared on nearby slopes like California poppies climbing toward the sun.

Children laughed. Skeptics grumbled.

For many people living in Bakersfield in October 1991, the Umbrellas Project must initially have seemed slightly wacky, if not downright insane.

Even Bee Barmann, a longtime supporter of the arts in Bakersfield, admits that she was put off by the idea at first. It just seemed so far outside of what she understood art to be -- or what she thought she understood.

"I was thinking, 'How dumb is this?'" she recalled recently.

Then something changed her mind. She went up the hill to see it.

"I was thrilled," she said. "It was incredibly beautiful."

It wasn't just the umbrellas. It was the umbrellas set against the beautiful blond hills and valleys of the southern Tehachapi Mountains. It was the light and shadow. It was the ribbon of highway tying it all together. And it was the whimsical incongruity of finding giant yellow umbrellas growing where one might normally see cattle grazing.

Vikki Cruz, curator at the Bakersfield Museum of Art, was only 11 at the time the umbrellas were installed.

"At the time I think I was more impressed with the aesthetic quality of the altered landscape," she recalled. "Thousands of pops of yellow scattered throughout the I-5 like enormous wildflowers was a beautiful sight to see."

Two decades later, Cruz said she's now more aware of the sheer magnitude of the project and the power of its legacy.

The Umbrellas project, she said, "left a significant mark on Kern County's history" and on residents "who were temporarily forced to change their perceptions of a familiar landscape."

Love and art

Christo Javacheff was born June 13, 1935, in Gabrovo, Bulgaria, in southeastern Europe. When he was 6 years old, his mother and father recognized his growing interest in drawing and other creative activities, so they decided he should have the benefit of private art lessons.

In 1952, at age 17, he began four years of study at the Fine Arts Academy in the capital city of Sofia. The academy provided a solid though conservative education in the arts, but in those days, Bulgarians lived behind the Iron Curtain in a sphere of influence dominated by the Soviets. So Christo eventually fled to Paris in 1958.

There he met Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon, the woman who would eventually become his wife and creative partner.

"Really, all our collaborators, workers, they were aware that Jeanne-Claude was working all the time with me," Christo said of their five-decade partnership.

"But the drawings, the preparatory sketches and drawings, I do myself with my own hand."

Jeanne-Claude died in November 2009 from complications of a brain aneurysm.

When asked how difficult it has been moving forward on their projects without Jeanne-Claude, Christo paused for a moment.

"Very difficult," he said. "I was with Jeanne-Claude 51 years.

"We were born the same day, the same year ... and it was like ... she was a very critical lady, she was absolutely opinionated, totally critical, all the time argumentative," he said with a chuckle, his voice filled with affection.

"She is with me all the time," he said.

Art is freedom

"The creative process involves many, many activities," Christo told The Californian back in 1991. "It's not only making the formal decisions of the structure, the color, the preparation and other elements. It involves also a revelation of the (local) area -- the people, the landscape and the light.

"It is impossible to know that at once," he said. "I need to spend time -- to live, talk, experience, reflect -- in order to crystallize finally how the project will look."

In the years leading up to the culmination of the project, Christo and Jeanne-Claude visited the area many times, until he knew and had documented seemingly every curve and valley.

In a 1995 interview for the Journal of Contemporary Art, Jeanne-Claude spoke about the freedom inherent in their work, its uniqueness and its ability to extend the traditional definitions or boundaries of art.

"You can see the people change," she said of those who witness their projects first-hand. "They start smiling at each other, they start talking to each other, they are in a completely different state of mind. (It) is very rewarding for us, because they feel that freedom and they feel that they are witnessing something that happens once in a lifetime."

But the hurdles they must cross to reach that point are various and many.

"All of our projects have two distinct periods, the software period and the hardware period," Christo explained in the recent interview. "The software period is when the work is only in the drawings and the sketches, in my mind and Jeanne-Claude's mind. They (the projects) physically do not exist, only as projection in my preparatory study and drawings -- and in the minds of people who want to stop us and the minds of people who want to help us."

The idea to erect thousands of umbrellas was a concept that evolved over time.

"Early on we were thinking to build some kind of house, but the houses were too complicated, too enclosing and too consuming (of) time," Christo told The Californian.

Later they considered tentlike structures before eventually settling on umbrellas, which they saw as "houses without walls."

Finding the sites also took time. Christo and Jeanne-Claude have explored thousands of miles of landscapes to find the right locations for their rural projects, such as The Umbrellas and the still-pending Over the River project.

Over the course of the project, they visited the Bakersfield area several times.

"We walked so much in California," Christo recalled. "We walked so much in Japan."

Longtime Bakersfield attorney Bernie Barmann, husband of Bee Barmann, held the post of Kern County counsel for many years. Now retired, he remembers Christo and Jeanne-Claude from their visits to Kern County Board of Supervisors meetings to enlist the supervisors' support.

"I was impressed by their professionalism and diplomacy," Barmann recalled, "and by their ability to work with the various county agencies."

The amount of red tape was daunting. Permission was required from more than two dozen local landowners -- and permits or official cooperation were required by dozens of agencies, including Caltrans, California Highway Patrol, Board of Equalization, and agencies in Kern and Los Angeles counties.

"This project came as a real gift dropped in our laps," Barmann added.

The tourism it generated, the jobs it created and the boost to the area's image were significant

In the end, the umbrellas project cost $26 million, all paid for by Christo and Jeanne-Claude through the sale of preparatory drawings and sketches, as well as earlier works. Accepting commercial sponsorship or government support has always been off-limits to the couple as they believed it would threaten the freedom and integrity that helps define their work.

The artists have always insisted that the sites be restored to their original condition and that the materials they use be recycled when possible. The aluminum used to construct the umbrellas, for example, was all recycled for other uses.

The end of whimsy

In the end, an estimated 3 million people saw the Umbrellas Project in Kern County and the Ibaraki area of Japan. It was not uncommon in California to find people experiencing the art directly by relaxing under the umbrellas. In Christo's view, those visitors became active participants in the art, something in which he and Jeanne-Claude took great joy.

Then, just days before the umbrellas' scheduled removal, something happened that would cast a pall over the art project.

On Oct. 26, a sudden, powerful wind uprooted one of the big umbrellas. They had undergone wind tunnel testing in the development stage and were anchored more than 30 inches into the earth, but the wind that day would not be denied. The 448-pound art object slammed into Lori Keevil-Matthews, 33, of Camarillo. She did not survive.

The joy and wonder the project had inspired seemed to evaporate overnight. Christo ordered the immediate removal of the umbrellas in both locations.

Then tragedy struck again. During the dismantling process in Japan, a 51-year-old worker, Masaaki Nakamura, died when the arm of the crane he was operating touched a high-voltage power line. The good will the project had created seemed to vanish.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude were reportedly in tears at a ceremony held in memory of the young wife. A suit filed by the family of Keevil-Matthews was settled out of court, and the details were not made public. The family could not be reached for comment for this story.

Twenty years later, the accidents in California and Japan continue to weigh heavily on the artist.

"It was terrible," Christo recalled during his interview with The Californian. "It's something that's always with us, all our lives."

Forgotten legacy?

As expected, opinion is still divided on the local legacy of the Umbrellas Project.

But many believe the memory and history of the massive art installation has become part of the very identity of Kern County -- not unlike the iconic Beale Clock Tower or the music known as the Bakersfield Sound.

But can a legacy survive if it is not nurtured? "It's important for this community not to forget," said Cynthia Lake.

Lake said she would like to see more efforts to keep the memory and the legacy of the project alive. Except for a peeling mural on a building in downtown Bakersfield that depicts the umbrellas, there are no major public reminders that the project ever existed, Lake said.

Some have suggested Christo and Jeanne-Claude succeeded in bringing surrealism into the public sphere, that the underlying theme of their work is freedom.

Did they succeed in extending the traditional boundaries of art?

Christo said he and Jeanne-Claude always wanted their projects to challenge the viewer's notion of art. But he shies away from nailing his work to specific themes or interpretations.

Each person forms his own impression of his work, he said. And each impression is valid.

"We have a tenderness and love for our life -- we know it will not last," he told The Californian. "We have a tenderness and love for our childhood -- we know that it will not last. That passing, that very temporary situation of our existence we like to embody to our work of art like (an) additional aesthetical dimension."

That is why his projects are so temporary, he said. They are there for a time, but like all of us, they will be gone tomorrow.

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